by Paul Pitchford
Nearly everyone with an eye on nutrition has come across information in the last few years about the vitamin D deficit in contemporary people. Part of this deficit can be traced to our current lifestyle of working and living inside during most daylight hours and then applying sunscreen whenever exposed to sunshine for more than a few minutes. As a result of misinterpreted science, many people are now afraid to get any sunshine whatsoever because they fear it will age them prematurely and cause skin cancer. Unfortunately, with a lack of vitamin D in our systems, a number of functions in the body diminish. Bones get weaker and even the RNA-genetic processes involved in healthy cellular renewal are thwarted. Without appropriate cell renewal, we degenerate much faster than otherwise and cancer and the autoimmune diseases become more likely.
One of nutritional science’s quick and easy solutions to the vitamin D dilemma is to take vitamin D supplements. There are several forms of these supplements and the most common are vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. A number of reports indicate that vitamin D2 is unsafe and recommend only the D3 form. And now certain research suggests that vitamin D3 can present problems as well. For instance, well-designed studies indicates that taking vitamin D3 doses higher than 2000 IU daily (recommendations for 4000-5000 IU are now commonplace) can cause excess calcium in the blood, which in turn leads to calcification of the soft tissues as well as bone loss. And soft tissue calcification is commonly known in medical practice to contribute to vascular disease such as hardening and thickening of the arteries; moreover, such calcium excess is thought to set up the conditions for our common degenerative diseases including arthritis, cancer and diabetes—the very conditions that vitamin D from sunlight protects us from.
We can learn something about vitamin D risk by understanding another fat-soluble nutrient—vitamin A. And since vitamin A and D are related, let’s now look at vitamin A risks. A little too much supplementary vitamin A/retinol ingestion and severe liver damage can result. Also life expectancy tends to plummet with long-term vitamin A supplementation [JAMA. 2007;297:842-857]. On the other hand, vitamin A from green and yellow plants (provitamin A) as well as animal foods is virtually always safe and in fact, highly desirable. However one food source of vitamin D—modern cod liver oil is normally much too high in vitamin A relative to vitamin D—and an excess of Vitamin A aggravates the function of Vitamin D in the body—thus the current recommendation by numerous health authorities to avoid cod liver oil. Generations ago, the cod liver oil given to children contained far more vitamin D.
Like vitamin A, will vitamin D in supplement form, even in amounts less than 2000 IU daily, also be shown by future science to contribute to a foreshortened life span? We simply don’t know. However, studies suggest that people who take supplements containing moderate doses of vitamin D for many years in the range of 400-600 IU daily do seem to accrue certain long-term health benefits, while exhibiting few if any adverse side effects. [Arch Intern Med. 2007; 167(16): 1709-1710] Thus, it appears that the widely available dosages of 400 or 500 IU are safe for prevention and health maintenance for those who simply do not get enough vitamin D from sunlight exposure.
Yet consider the differing forms of vitamin D. Clearly they all work uniquely and as capsules, tablets, liquids, and sprays that we intake, none function identically to the incredibly complex action of vitamin D from sunshine on our skin. An isolated nutrient can never function in body as well as nutrients in the context of natural sources such as sunshine or whole foods. All isolates (including pharmaceuticals and refined foods) rob the body of the necessary cofactors needed to fully metabolize them. Therefore we should be wary of taking not only isolated vitamin D, but the long-term intake of all other isolates.
In my opinion, taking any isolate including drugs should be a well understood, disciplined process used only in a crisis and then ended when safer, more wholesome methods can support enduring health. Long-term use of individual chemicals, drugs, and nutrients all too often leads to deep deficiencies. Those who choose massive vitamin D3 supplementation, e.g., 10,000 IU daily for 8 months or more to overcome a severe deficiency, should be checked every 12 weeks by a doctor for possible imbalances in blood calcium, phosphorus and parathyroid hormone. If you opt for sunshine, these issues seldom arise. No one ever gets too much vitamin D from sunshine because the sunlight destroys excess vitamin D once an adequate threshold is reached.
How can we maintain sufficient vitamin D without supplementation? The ideal way is to absorb sunshine for 15 minutes or so each day, at least on the hands and face, where most vitamin D receptors are located. Exposing arms, legs and more in the warmer weather helps to build a several-month store of vitamin D in our fat cells. Sunscreen, or better yet, light clothing can be utilized long before the skin starts to burn. Ultraviolet lamps are now available that supply UV-B wavelength to produce true and safe vitamin D—though one must monitor exposure, just like with sunlight exposure. Sunlight through clouds is also effective although less so than direct sunshine. (Sunlight through glass, such as in a car, home or office, provides no vitamin D activity.)
Thus the vitamin D challenge is solved by simply being outside enough in the daytime. Gardening, picnics, outdoor swimming, going for walks, biking, the traditional outdoor practice of qi gong ….there are plenty of ways we can choose to benefit from being in nature. We receive valuable “qi” vitality (an ancient Chinese term for life energy) from fresh air, plants, the soil, and the celestial bodies including the sun while ensuring adequate and safe vitamin D.
As we exit buildings and cars and enter a park or other pristine environs, we can embrace the non-linear, non-digital, unified nature of Nature. Wonderful alive colors of flowers and plants, aromas, reflected light, sights and sounds of wind, birds, moving leaves, falling rain, ocean waves… everything in Nature is able to impart healing renewal for our minds, psyches, emotions, and bodies. If we become mindful of the infinite in Nature, we will want to respect and merge with it. Instead of the attitude that getting enough sunlight/vitamin D is a necessary “health chore”, we can joyfully look forward to being outside because we appreciate it and its limitless benefits.
A complementary approach to the vitamin D issue involves what nutrition pioneer Bernard Jensen referred to as “stored sunshine”. This of course is chlorophyll, the substance created from sunlight on plants that makes them green. Dr. Jensen would advise convalescents and others without regular access to the sun to eat plenty of greens. Valuable edible green plants include parsley, kale, collards, mustard greens, cabbage, broccoli, arugula, dandelion greens, and many others. Can chlorophyll substitute completely for sunshine? Absolutely not, however it mimics vitamin D from sunshine in this regard: chlorophyll supports bone mass by directing calcium to deposit in the bone; it can also, like vitamin D, help with cellular renewal because chlorophyll foods all contain “growth regulating factors” that spark proper cell differentiation, growth and development. This healthy cell patterning stands in contrast to the unchecked, undifferentiated, malignant growth of cancer. Therefore the most chlorophyll-rich sources such as barley grass and chlorella are frequently used in nutritional approaches to cancer therapy. As Vitamin D via gene regulation counteracts pain, inflammation, and depression, chlorophyll-laden foods likewise feature these benefits, though the precise physiologic pathway is not yet known.